Five Not-So-Easy Pieces: The Sixie Family Survival Guide

The SculptureThe Parent Imperfect and family made it through Day Won of the new school year. When I asked Connie what was different this year, she said, “Everything’s different…I’m not a “sixie” any more.”

“Sixie” is the term affectionately given to seventh graders at the nation’s oldest public school. Now that we have twice been through the process of parenting a child living this unique experience, it’s time to suggest a few things that the parent of a sixie might have in mind as the shock of this transition begins to wear off. This started out as a “Sixie Parent’s Survival Guide,” but it’s really a family thing. I honestly don’t know if they use this retrograde idea of “sixies” at the other exam schools, but this is about BLS. I asked Vince if he had anything for me to put in a guide for the families of sixies. Without hesitation, he answered, “Yeah…put, ‘Don’t Read This!!!’ in huge letters at the top.” I’ve just realized that BLS publishes its own “Parent Survival Kit,” so its probably a good thing that I changed the name.

Many sixie parents/guardians have been through this before, either with an older student, or as a student, themselves. I’d bet that as many as one-fourth of the parents of incoming sixies are veterans of the process. That’s a lot of experience, but it leaves as many as 375 families who are going through this for the first time. This “guide” is for you and your families. Since many who will read this have been through it all before, I hope you’ll take the time to correct the ideas in here that just don’t make sense to you. These are in no particular order.

PIECE ONE: Think carefully about social media with your child. In the four years that passed between Child 1’s sixie year and that of Child 2, social media among seventh graders at BLS has gone from being silly and seriously problematic to being highly toxic and downright dangerous. It is the way that many sixies “connect” at a moment when they desperately need connection. Important and positive communication absolutely takes place among youth via social media, but it is also a place where they get to try on their darker sides. You know about that, right?

Bad GirlLast spring, a “friend” of Connie’s accessed her Twitter account and spewed out several really terrible tweets before Connie realized what was happening and shut the thing down. Connie is still dealing with the damage this caused to people hurt by those tweets, including herself. Two evenings ago, a tenth-grade friend of Connie’s had her account taken over by a truly deranged young male (probably a perfectly charming lad, if you met him walking down Centre St.). I assume that this was someone she knew, since he had her password. Sadly, kids do much worse than this out of their own accounts, using their own identities.

We (Liz, actually) contacted the school administration about this problem last year at the end of school, and got NO RESPONSE (get used to this…you’re just one of 3500 parents at the school). The administration may be doing something other than monitoring the internal wireless channel, but they are not doing enough to address cyber-bullying and the like at the school. By acting like clueless people of another generation, we/they are courting disaster, and I occasionally lose sleep about some of the things that I find out about. I know nothing…

This summer, I’ve been reading a book called, The Big Disconnectby Katherine Steiner-Adair and Theresa Barker. The book is only minimally preachy and it collects and presents valuable data on things that you already know, intuitively. What makes it stand out for me is that it forces me to face the ways that my own media/communication habits (this blog, for example) influence what our children do with social media and, especially, how they connect to me (or not). For that challenge, alone, the book was well worth what it cost me to take it out of the library.

PIECE TWO: Find a way to get to sixie parents’ night. This is the maddening evening when you drive to the school, can’t find a place to park, get into the school too late and spend the rest of the evening trying to catch up to your child’s schedule. It’s worth it, though. Take public transport, carpool or get there early enough to get a parking place (a half hour before the thing starts). Then you will go to your child’s homeroom and get their schedule for a mythical day. You’ll then go through the schedule for 8 minute classes. You’ll get to lay eyes on the teachers and introduce yourself to a few of them. They will give you a little syllabus and tell you the best way to contact them. WRITE THAT DOWN SOMEPLACE WHERE IT WON’T GO AWAY FOR THE ENTIRE YEAR! Most importantly, moving through the day in this way will begin to give you an idea of what you have subjected your child to. WARNING! They changed Parent’s Night last year in a way that made it much less useful. I hope they’ve changed it back this year. This year’s Class VI (and Class V) BLS Parents’ Night is on Tuesday, September 16 at 5:30PM in the cafeteria.

WolfpackPIECE THREE:  Join “The Village.” If you are reading this, you waste a good deal of time in front of a computer. Join the BLS community mail-list and waste a little more. Very many of the messages won’t be relevant to you. Others will be relevant, but infuriating. But ten per cent of the messages will have info that you need and can’t easily get, elsewhere. Despite the presence of many BLS parents and the list being called “BLS Parents,” this is not a parents’ list. Remember that when you post to the list. School administrators lurk incessantly, as do some teachers and some parents whose kids are long gone from the school. I think there needs to be an unofficial parents list that only contains parents (There’s a project for you….)  Given the wild stuff on “The Village” over the years, pretty much anything goes, but people draw the line at personal attacks on one another and direct references to specific teachers. If you want to communicate with someone directly, do so off the list. At least twice a year, a new parent on the list is humiliated by broadcasting something quite personal or inflammatory meant for a single person, to several hundred people. It does not seem possible to subscribe automatically to the list. You have to e-mail the list moderator, and I doubt he’d want me to put his e-mail on this blog. If you comment to this blog that you can’t get his address, I’ll send it to you.

PIECE FOUR: Be smart about homework. A couple of years ago, our neighbor’s girlfriend, who was about to graduate as one of those BLS superstars, gave Connie some advice. “You don’t have to be super-smart to do great at BLS. You just need to make the teachers like you, find out what the homework is and do it. The problem is that it’s very hard to do all those things, all the time.” “Very hard” is quite an understatement.

Yes, make sure your child has a comfy and quite place to do homework. Yes, come to some understanding about the rules around electronic distractions during homework time. Yes, occasionally check assignments. Yes, be available for your child to ask you questions about the homework (on the usually mistaken assumption that you can help him/her), but make sure that they do the homework, not you. And yes, let it be known when you think a teacher is breaking the most broken policy at BLS, the homework policy.

Do all those things, but also be smart about homework. Your seventh grader came home yesterday with the famous Agenda. They are trained to list all assignments in the agenda, but only a minority of them do so. Look at the agenda with him/her each night to be sure that this is happening. Be clear with them that, while it shouldn’t be this way, getting the homework assignment is one of the most important things they will do in each class. Each teacher gives the assignment differently, and at least half of them will do it in a way that is not good communication for your child. Many very intelligent children at the school do not thrive at BLS either because they don’t get the assignment, or don’t give a crap about it…or both. Working with your child on this simple transaction (getting the homework) will be MUCH more important than wasting your time, and theirs, breathing down their necks while they try to study the dictionary entry for that Latin verb. And make sure they have a homework buddy for each class…someone they can call on the off chance that they didn’t get the assignment. Make your own list of the buddies.

In seventh grade, there is an optimal percentage of the homework that each student should do. It’s different for each student. No student should think they can get away with doing 40% of their assignments, but nor should anyone feel that they must do 100%, either. There will be many nights when it is more important–for the entire family–that your child to do what they can and then get some sleep. Help them realize that.

Friends of ArtsPIECE FIVE:  Connect to the community. One of the things that both our seventh graders had in common is that they begged us to stay away from the school. What could be more embarrassing than having your older-than-usual parents hanging around your middle/high school? Many bones in my body agreed with them. I have too much to do already, and I was/am quite ambivalent of being part of a community around what I consider to be an elitist institution that reproduces many of the things that make me want to holler.

But at some point I realized that I was on a path to having my two kids in this school for a total of 12 years. For the kids, finding a way to connect to the place was going to be critical to their survival there, and was not going to be easy. Maybe the parents making an effort to connect to this quirky community was going to both help Vince and Connie in their struggles to connect, and it just might also give us a sense our own sense of connection that we also need if our kids are going to spend so much time at the school.

This is a work in progress. We still have too much to do and aren’t really connected. We still get frustrated by our efforts to engage with the school, but we try. Vince and Connie continue to redirect us away from BLS, at every turn, but they occasionally let it slip that they like us to be SORT OF connected to their lives.

Whoever you are, there is something going on at the school that you can connect to. They’ve got the Friends of the Arts, the Friends of Athletics, and even the Friends of People Who Are So Angry With the School That They Could Scream. Connect to help. Connect to meet others who share your experience. Connect to complain. Connect to survive.

Ugh! This is way too long. Do correct what seems wrong to you!

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8 Comments

Filed under Boston Public Schools, Exam Schools

8 responses to “Five Not-So-Easy Pieces: The Sixie Family Survival Guide

  1. meganalexa

    Hey there, can’t seem to access this, either through this link or by going straight to the PI 😦 Megan

    Date: Wed, 3 Sep 2014 03:01:24 +0000 To: mwolf47@hotmail.com

  2. meganalexa

    Woops, now see that I can read it here, though going straight to the link doesn’t seem to work.

    From: mwolf47@hotmail.com To: comment+zag05br-r6o0sjxf7mvnq8@comment.wordpress.com; kevinmurraysc@gmail.com Subject: RE: [New post] Five Not-So-Easy Pieces: The Sixie Family Survival Guide Date: Wed, 3 Sep 2014 09:34:23 -0400

    Hey there, can’t seem to access this, either through this link or by going straight to the PI 😦 Megan

    Date: Wed, 3 Sep 2014 03:01:24 +0000 To: mwolf47@hotmail.com

  3. Rachel

    It all rings true to me. I would add as a corollary to the homework piece- prioritize helping your kid get a reasonable amount of sleep. Also, the school nurses are truly wonderful.

  4. Good corollary, Rachel. Thanks. That’s exactly what I mean by saying that, for the vast majority of sixies, the optimal percentage of homework done is not 100%. All of the available research says that BLS starts too early in the day for teenagers (especially those of the male persuasion). If you combine that early start with a homework burden that has them staying up too late at night, then you have a recipe for collapse (or at least high stress and bad family dynamics). This becomes more difficult to avoid in high school, which is bad enough, but seventh and eighth graders really ought to get their sleep.

  5. angie p

    Of course how many kids getting in Harvard is not the only measurement to see how well bls does in comparison to other public schools but it has been one big thing about how bls is attractive to many super-achievers. thanks to several years of socializing grading system and non-responsiveness to any concern of parents by headmaster. this year, bls did no better than belmont high who sent 10 in early admission to harvard while bls had 11 after 6 years of lost sleep by early start and dreadful amount of homework. it was not necessary to torture kids for 6 years with no better outcome in college admission rate, while depriving reasonable time to relax and thereby failing to provide way to keep sound mental and physical health.
    superintendents and headmasters really can ruin the performance of students by not engaging in issues that affects students for years. this HM has to go if you want any change for the better along with some impossible teachers who are sadistic and get the fun out of giving lower grade for hardworking kids while they don’t teach appropriately.
    THere are still very hard working and responsive teachers although they are not majority.

    • Thanks, Angie. Several people got back to me offline and said that this “survival guide” was cute, but that I had avoided the most thorny of all issues, the adult supervision at the school. I meant to write a “Part II” of the guide, talking about the how teachers and administration fit in at the school. You’ve kind of called that question with your comment.

      Like you, I don’t see the number of Harvard early admissions as the measure of anything. My critique of the school would be the same, even if BLS had 25 (or 50) early admissions to Harvard. The school works really well for about 1/3 of the students who stick it out. It is a mixed bag for another third, and a truly difficult experience for the rest of the kids.

      Both of our kids have had some wonderful teachers at BLS. In this, his senior year, Vince has two really outstanding teachers, and only one that has been difficult for him to communicate with. Vince’s eighth-grade English teacher was an incredible breath of fresh air at a really important time. This man helped Vince recover some self-esteem after a demeaning seventh-grade year. An important part of that tough sixie year were a couple of simply incompetent teachers and one who should never have been working with young people in any way. No year has been as bad as grade seven, but Vince has had the same combination of very good, very bad and simply average teachers each year. Unfortunately, the really bad teachers have done more damage than the very good ones have been able to repair. In my experience, teachers are no different than any other profession in this regard. Is everyone in your line of work a star?

      To me, it is a big part of the administration’s job (1) to celebrate the great teachers and create opportunities for them inspire and help their colleagues; (2) to support the ongoing improvement all teachers through real professional development programs; and (3) to see that the behavior of truly problematic teachers is addressed in a direct and effective way in order to minimize the effect on students. Obviously, a huge question arises here about who decides who is really problematic and how do they make that decision. I’m an easy grader, and I’d still give the BLS administration a C- for this course.

      As parents, we have tried to engage with Vince’s teachers, with very mixed results. In his six years, there has been one case when a conversation with a department director actually resulted in a useful intervention with an abusive teacher. That teacher changed his behavior with Vince, but he is still at the school and some parents and students remain very concerned with his behavior and the quality of his teaching. In Vince’s sixie year, we were completely unsuccessful at achieving any such intervention. The teacher who took a special pleasure at humiliating Vince in class was the cluster “master,” so there was no recourse at that level. This fellow’s department director was fully supportive of him, rolling her eyes repeatedly the one time I brought my concerns to her. She knew full well what this teacher was doing in class and chose not to address it. Our son begged us not to go to the headmaster, because he didn’t think she’d do anything to help, and our meddling would only turn into more problems for him with this teacher.

      I’m embarrassed to say that we joined our son in taking a “let’s curl up in the fetal position and try to make it through this” posture. It wasn’t just Vince’s pleading that led to the avoidance on our part. We also knew that Vince wasn’t doing what he should be doing, so we never felt that we had a completely righteous case. We knew that this teacher’s conduct was beyond the pale, but we rationalized that we would deal with this after the school year. As I’m sure is true for many families, by that time, dealing with BLS was the last thing we wanted to be thinking about. Our inaction was a disservice to Vince, as well as those who came after him.

      So, what’s the takeaway? Do connect with your child’s teachers and don’t wait for problems to fester before you engage. If you don’t get satisfaction from the teacher, go up the food chain, as the administration suggests, to the department director and, eventually, the headmaster. Wheels that squeak enough usually do get oiled at BLS, but one often needs to squeak very loudly for a very long time. Many families(including ours) have a hard time maintaining the friction. By keeping all disputes/complaints on an individual level, the administration always has the advantage, so talk with other families facing similar challenges to see if it is possible to engage together. Perhaps the development of stronger ways for parents to engage the administration collectively is where the real change must come, but it is really difficult to change the course of a river that has been flowing along a well-defined riverbed for 380 years.

  6. Catherine

    Hi, my daughter currently attending BLS, but as a bsie, she was never told about how to get us on the Parent Listserv, and I’ve been emailing heads of parent committees to no avail. Can you provide us with the email address of the list moderator? Thank you so much.

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